How Sound Affects Your Home Theater Customers’ Emotions

By appealing to customers’ emotions via certain soundtracks and biological reactions to music, integrators may be able to boost sales of home theater equipment.

Richard Fairbrother
How Sound Affects Your Home Theater Customers’ Emotions

According to Richard Fairbrother of Bitstream Media, sound design and mixing are critical factors in developing an emotional listening experience.

If cinema can be considered art, then it offers value to the world around us. Art inspires, teaches, motivates, and provokes emotions.

While every work of art may not be considered great, in the world of cinema, we are all richer for our ability to seek the cinematic experiences that resonate within.

The movie-going experience, whether watching alone or as part of a packed movie house, offers an enriching element in our lives. As an industry, we have a duty to protect and further this art form and its value in the world.

The home cinematic experience has always been capable of being more refined than commercial cinemas.

Home cinema has elevated itself almost to the level of raw, source material, given the tremendous advances in aesthetics, acoustics, color, control, higher channel counts, resolution, and screen control.

Despite these gains, we continue to see a chasm between what dealers could achieve and what they are achieving. We've become hyper-focused on the specifications of the parts and pieces, losing sight of the home-theater experience as a whole.

How does an integrator sell a high-end home theater and why should one piece of gear cost more than another? What is the secret to convincing a homeowner to spend such money?

When customers say they can't detect a difference, it is our job to combat that mindset. A simple statement such as “buy better gear” doesn't usually work, unless you have already built and established value in that solution.

Consider instead building an experience that leads to one benefit that all humans can relate to… emotion.

How to Use Sound to Your Advantage

From birth, humans seek emotional connections and experiences. It is a defining characteristic, helping us to connect with and understand the world and people around us. Movies depend on this human trait, bringing us stories that make people laugh and cry or feel joy, sorrow, defeat, and triumph.

“A home cinema protects the sincerity of our reactions as we watch a movie. There is no judgment when we cheer or cry, or when we gasp or laugh aloud.”

—Richard Fairbrother, Bitstream Media 

A home cinema protects the sincerity of our reactions as we watch a movie. There is no judgment when we cheer or cry, or when we gasp or laugh aloud. What we watch is amplified by skillfully-crafted soundtracks and sound effects that can be as awe-inspiring as the moving images before our eyes.

This article will take a closer look at one of the most effective ways to create an emotional experience in a home theater – sound.

Sound has so much to do with emotion. It could be argued that sound has a greater impact on emotion than pictures, including moving pictures.

As humans, there is an intrinsic and natural emotional response when we hear sounds, especially with music. As Bryce Dallas Howard so wisely noted, paraphrasing Irving Berlin at the AFI event for John Williams’ Lifetime Achievement Award, “The movie may have ended, but the melody lingers on.”

So, how do we build value for sound in the home cinema experience? The simple answer: a conversation.

We talk with everyone about the relationship between sound, music, and emotion. This is a conversation backed by science.

Cognitive and neurobiological studies have identified six ways that sound and music influence our emotions. They include brain stem reflex, evaluate conditioning, emotional contagion, visual imagery, episodic memory, and music expectancy.

Including some of these concepts in our conversations to build value in sound can take a consumer from their initial budget to a much higher one.

Here we highlight three of these concepts and their effects on human emotion:

The Brain Stem Reflex 

The Brain Stem Reflex group of sounds has an immediate impact on the brain. Crashes, alarms, a baby’s cries, and whistles are stimuli that cause an immediate reaction, fight or flight.

Musically, these include high-pitched strings, think of the shower scene in Psycho or an ominous crescendo of violins warning of wicked weather, as heard in Twister.

Another perfect example is Hans Zimmer’s use of razorblades scraping across a taut wire. This grating, tension-inducing sound became the cue for Joker’s presence in The Dark Knight.

Consider, also, the most universally-regarded piece of music that provokes an immediate response – the two-note theme in John William’s score for JAWS.

Just two notes are enough of a stimulus to make people want to jump out of the water or to avoid it altogether.

Emotional Contagion 

According to research from Lund University, emotional contagion, “refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced by music because the listener perceives the emotion expressed in the music, and then ‘mimics’ this expression internally, which by means of either peripheral feedback from muscles, or a more direct activation of the relevant emotion representations in the brain, leads to an induction of the same emotion.”

Simply put, that neurobiology allows us to feel what the artist intended with their music, and we as the viewer can reach an emotional state that mimics the music.

How do we relay this concept to the customer? We use the following:

  1. The different songs we all have for the soundtrack of our lives
  2. The theme from Superman
  3. The finale from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Starting with the soundtrack of our lives, ask your customer: What music do you listen to at the gym? Is that different from your music for reflection and meditation? When you’re sad, what is your music selection? What is your “shut up and dance with me” music? We look to music to reinforce our emotions, alter them, and to elicit new ones.

Another example is Superman, the 1978 classic. As we watch Clark Kent tear open his shirt to reveal the ever-recognizable “S” we hear the notes of one of the most identifiable themes in cinema. John William’s score elevates the emotional impact of the movie.

Through his music, we understand why a man can fly, how he can be bullet-proof, and a noble hero to all. This theme continues to play in the minds of children and adults alike. It remains one of the most recognizable character themes ever, 40 years after it was first heard in the theater.

The bottom line to impress upon your clients is that music contributes to our suspension of disbelief because we internalize the music’s intent. Our emotional state is amplified and our experience becomes more extraordinary.

Visual Imagery 

Again, according to research from Lund University, visual imagery, “refers to a process whereby an emotion is induced in a listener because he or she conjures up visual images (e.g., of a beautiful landscape) while listening to the music. The emotions experienced are the result of a close interaction between the music and the images.”

Imagine if you were to invite clients for a demo, and without any images on the screen, told them to close their eyes and to write down what they visualized as you play sound effects.

Waves crashing against a shoreline might evoke imagery of a beach or a cliff. Add a foghorn and they may visualize a lighthouse. Make it a contest by playing famous sound effects like Darth Vader’s breathing, a lightsaber battle, or a T-Rex roar from Jurassic Park.

Sound and music not only help us make sense of what we see, they move the story forward in emotional ways that images alone cannot.

Sound Sells

It’s one of the most important tools we have to generate emotion in the home cinema environment. However, it’s not limited to just home theaters. Music follows us everywhere and has become part of our day to day existence.

The ability to talk to people and use music and sound are indispensable when it comes to determining the best solution for your clients. We must create the desire for a home cinema environment where the emotional experience surpasses all expectation.

In our industry, we are very capable of explaining the science behind the relationship between speaker position and how we hear sounds.

“Showing the importance of sound allows you to build a system that is capable of reproducing everything the sound designers and directors intended for the audience to feel. ”

— Richard Fairbrother, Bitstream Media 

It's time that we take the next step and be able to explain why that relationship is so important.

Cheerful, light, scary, mystical, and funny are just a few categories that companies use to identify the music they provide for sound editing.

Imagine demo-ing music, sound only, and asking the listener what kind of music it is? Is it sad, happy, uplifting, or ominous? Better yet, hand out adjective cards and ask a small group to listen. I guarantee everyone will pick the same adjective to label the music.

Showing the importance of sound allows you to build a system that is capable of reproducing everything the sound designers and directors intended for the audience to feel.

Accuracy, frequency reproduction, and dynamic range all must come as close as possible to the original source material, otherwise, the experience and emotion diminish.

Have a Conversation About Sound 

By having a conversation about how sound design and mixing are critical factors in developing an emotional experience, your client will trust your decisions on speakers, amplification, processing and a host of other audio considerations.

Sound designers and composers know that emotion drives the story. We must help reproduce their intent and showcase their ability to evoke emotion.

When done, it often means not just hearing the difference in a superior sound system, but feeling that difference as well. Make use of available demos to demonstrate the capability of a superior sound system and what such a system can mean to a home cinema experience.

This year alone, soundtracks will account for over one hundred million units sold.

Sound and music remain influential and relevant, long after the credits end. It’s an extension of our movie-going experience and relates to the emotional value built during the movie. If you help your clients get it right, the emotional experience will extend beyond their cinema.

I hope this article at least strikes a chord and allows you to help build value to the bottom line of your next home cinema specification. It should raise not only your profits but your ability to sell higher-end solutions. Most importantly it will add value to your clients.

Being able to connect sound, emotion, and experience will make you a credible expert in establishing real value to the end user. This will differentiate your company from others, and that is priceless. After all, as humans, we crave what you’re selling.

Richard Fairbrother is a 17-year industry veteran. As principal of Bitstream Media, an industry rep firm, he helps dealers develop award-winning solutions.